Compass: University aims to produce good teachers - and help keep them in Alaska

Coming from a family of educators, few things mean more to me than teacher preparation and retention. My parents were teachers and all five of us children became teachers, yet only one of us still remains in teaching. This personal experience with the teacher retention problem came down, in my family's case, to a lack of support we as teachers received. This leads me to believe that a cultural shift needs to happen within the Alaska school system, beginning with the university creating a real support system for the teachers it produces.

During my two years as a regent, I have learned that the challenge of teacher preparation is central to the educational mission of the University of Alaska. The support given to teacher preparation has a direct spin-off in the classroom for our children growing up in the Alaska school system. Teacher preparation has to be a combined effort created through productive partnerships between the university and the greater education community in the state. These partnerships are key to solving teacher retention, recruitment and preparation problems.

Recently I presented a report on teacher preparation, retention and recruitment to the Alaska Legislature on behalf of the University of Alaska Board of Regents. Part of this report demonstrated how the board has worked to reach out and build on important relationships with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and other entities in the state. Within these relationships, we are creating a common vision for the future of education in Alaska, a vision being carried out on all of our campuses.

Through the University of Alaska Teacher Education Consortium, we are engaging in dialogue about the issues our teachers and our administrators are facing in our rural, suburban and urban K-12 classrooms. We will continue this focused collaboration. We are committed to reporting back to the people of Alaska about our progress, with the hope that all Alaskans will join us in this very important conversation about our most precious natural resource: our children.

Teaching is the bedrock of our society with the goal of creating, developing and growing good citizens. It is a noble profession, similar to nursing. Teachers in the classroom are the backbone of a school, just like nurses at the bedside are the backbone of a hospital. In order to have an engaged and informed citizenry, we need to have supported, expert teachers in place. That is why the university has programs like Future Educators of Alaska, to help guide high school students who want to be teachers, and the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project, which is proven to increase teacher retention.

We believe in growing our own educators and our campuses share in that vision. One such example is the University of Alaska Southeast PITAAS (Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools) program, which provides scholarship funds for Alaska Native students who plan to teach in Alaska public schools after graduation.

These steps and partnerships work toward improving the quality and quantity of our teacher graduates, getting them placed and mentoring them for success. These steps also include increasing the number of high-demand special education teachers, hiring experienced and dynamic education leaders and listening carefully to our statewide education partners and employers.

But there are many factors outside the university's control that impact recruiting students into the education profession and placing graduates into teaching positions. These factors include teacher salary and benefit packages, teacher layoffs and challenging living conditions for teachers in rural areas. To be truly successful in improving the quality and quantity of teachers in Alaska, we need to build on our partnerships with Alaska's schools. We also have to recognize that there is no simple solution: All of us have a role to play in making a substantive and measurable difference.

Partnerships between the state and the university will fulfill our responsibility to educate, train and develop Alaska's citizens. Teachers are the foundation of that effort. Properly applied, these efforts and partnerships will make progress in the problem of teacher retention, recruitment and preparation.

Mike Powers is secretary of the University of Alaska Board of Regents and CEO of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and Denali Center. He has worked as a high school teacher, newspaper reporter and VISTA volunteer in Alaska and Wisconsin.